You have heard of tiger mom but you have not heard of tiger rice, right? No, tiger moms do not make tiger rice. Other than the Asian connection, they are not related at all.
The name tiger rice is a literal translation that cheeky desis use for ‘pulihora,’ a Telugu word for tamarind rice dish, because the word ‘puli’ means both the fruit, tamarind and the feline, tiger. Tamilians call the dish pulisaadam or puliyodarai. Kannadigas call it puliyogare. It is a classic, traditional dish that has a deep emotional hold over many South Indians. This tart, aromatic, spicy dish with a wonderful taste is made during Hindu festivals and weddings and other special occasions. The dish is made as a special offering to God as ‘prasadam.’ Many Hindu temples, especially those rooted in deep tradition offer this to devotees who perform prayers at the temple. It is a great treat to get this in a green leaf bowl at a temple after you perform prayer rituals. Some temples sell it as well and the dish is a great draw for visitors and a revenue generator for the temple. Some people living close to a temple even make it a daily meal. Indians living abroad sometimes visit temples just so they could have a taste of this great dish.
The process of making this dish starts the night before. Dried tamarind fruit is soaked in water, then squeezed to a pulp and filtered to remove seeds, inner white skin, veins, and any remaining pieces of the shell. Cooking oil is heated in a shallow pan and peanuts, dried red chilies, fresh green chilies, whole peppercorns, curry leaves, chana dal (split yellow chickpeas), urad dal (split black lentils), asafoetida, turmeric, and salt are added to the hot oil. The tamarind pulp is added to the hot oil mixture and stirred endlessly until it acquires the consistency of molasses. This spice mix is called ‘pulihora pulusu.’ The word pulusu literally means soup. This spice mix is allowed to cool overnight, which also allows the flavors to come together well. Busy professionals make this spice mix once every few months and store it in the refrigerator. It is available in Indian stores as well. The morning after the spice mix is made, rice is made in a way that the cooked grains separate nicely without sticking to each other. Aged sona masoori rice, a type of medium grain rice that is very popular in South India, works greatly for this purpose. When this is made for a religious occasion, the person preparing the dish does so after a shower. It is considered impure to do so otherwise. In Hindu temples, this dish was made only by people belonging to the Brahmin caste and hopefully that’s changing now.
Each family gives this dish its unique signature and it is a matter of family pride. My mother slits the green chilies and inserts some salt into them before frying. My late husband’s family grinds the peppercorns and also add a special powder made from roasted sesame seeds and other secret ingredients to give it a special touch. In Tirupati temple, only sesame oil is used for the dish. Lemon rice and raw mango rice are easy to make variations, but many consider them to be completely different dishes.
A nice bowl of pulihora is all you need to satisfy your palate and your heart. You can add some pickle and papadum to the plate if you wish. The dish goes well with spicy potato curry and a special eggplant dish called ‘gutti vankaya.’ A side of yogurt rice is a wonderful accompaniment which helps cool down your tummy. Yesterday on a food tour in Venice, one of our food stops was a bowl of traditional risotto served with a rice wafer. It made me think that some traditions are similar across different cultures. It also made me hungry for some tamarind rice! Can’t wait to go home, take out the special spice mix my mom kept in the fridge, make some for myself and dig in!!